Stodgy, Old Baseball Invents the Future of Instant Replay

Employees demonstrate the replay operations center at MLB Advanced Media headquarters in New York on March 26 Photograph by Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times via Redux

Major League Baseball is not inclined to tinker much with America’s pastime, aside from the occasional tweak to the number of teams in the playoffs. More than four decades after the designated hitter rule, people still argue about it. Yet this season the most change-averse league will adopt the most technologically advanced and centralized replay-review system in all of U.S. sports.

A set of a dozen cameras installed at all 30 ballparks will feed live video to a panopticon of monitors in the offices of MLB Advanced Media in New York, where “video officials” pulled from the ranks of umpires will be able to rewatch close plays as they happen. Instead of huddling under a hood or at a nearby monitor like their counterparts in football and basketball, umpires at the ballpark will pick up headsets linked to the replay center and defer to the judgment of remote replay observers.

The system, brought to you by the same wizards behind the great leap forward in player tracking, is a blessedly rational response to an old fan complaint: Why can’t somebody tell the umpire what we can all see on broadcast replays? Joe Torre, the former New York Yankees manager and now MLB’s vice president for baseball operations, told reporters this week that he was moved to expand replays after a blown call at second base hurt the Yankees in the 2012 American League Championship Series. “The one thing I didn’t want to have happen was to have something like that really take center stage over the game itself,” said Torre.

Under the new system, managers will have one chance to challenge any play from the list of reviewable calls. No, it does not include balls and strikes. And, yes, the “neighborhood play” at second base will still stand. If a manager’s challenge proves correct, he gets another chance to challenge. From the seventh inning on, umpires can choose to review calls at their discretion.

According to the league’s analysis of 50,000 reviewable close plays from last season, only 377 would have been reversed, a rate of one every 6.4 games. So a handful of challenges per game should be sufficient.

The chief complaints from baseball’s cohort of old complainers are likely to revolve around slowing down an already drawn-out affair and disrupting the ritual of red-faced managers kicking dirt and pointing fingers. Those tantrums, of course, are part of what slows the game down. The new system won’t do away with the tantrums, but it should help limit their length. Managers can still leave the dugout to argue whether or not they are seeking a review. “The umpire will give them time to disagree,” said Torre, “and then eventually say, ‘Are you going to challenge or not?’” The league also expects to get back time spent on reviews by cracking down on lollygagging pitchers and other pace-of-play offenders.

“We want to keep the game flowing,” said Torre. “We really don’t want to change a whole lot, but we want to make it better and fairer.” Even Lou Piniella would find it hard to argue with that.

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